“Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”
– Exodus 33:23
Moses and God seem to be having a very special moment in this passage out of the Hebrew Scriptures. God, seemingly in an effort to assure Moses that he is not alone in all of this, agrees to do a sort of fly-by as Moses chills on a rock. Our translations, doing the best they can to convey this “beyond words” moment, say that Moses will see God’s back. Many Old Testament scholars teach that a better way to understand this is that Moses saw “where God just was”. The breath taking, beyond words, mystical experience that Moses was about to have consisted of him seeing where God just was.
Nicole and I did a lot of star gazing back in college. Kansas is not necessarily a place that attracts the masses, but I would still say that its night sky is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Sometime during my childhood I learned a truly remarkable thing about stars. I learned that what we see when we look up is often not what is actually there. Apparently it takes so long for the light given off by one of these stars to reach us that many of the ones we see today are not there anymore, and there are many more that are there whose light hasn’t yet reached us. We have mapped out several constellations. We have given ourselves the illusion that we understand, at least to some degree, the night sky–the universe. Of course the reality is that we have no idea what is actually still there. We are working within a very limited frame of reference.
And so it is with God. This ancient narrative about Moses seeing where God just was points to a greater reality that, try as we might to theologically pin God down, we will always be a few steps behind. Of course the reality of how much of the night sky is actually a mystery to us doesn’t stop us from doing our best to study, admire, and map it out–nor should it. In the same way, acknowledging our very limited frame of reference in terms of understanding God shouldn’t stop us from doing all we can to learn from what we do see, read, and experience.
One aspect of watching the night sky that never gets old is the inevitable surprise. A meteor. A comet. The Northern Lights coming into view. So it is with God. The danger in allowing ourselves to believe that we can somehow know everything about God is that we chalk up the surprises that challenge our understanding to a lack of faithfulness to the Gospel, a lack of truth, and even heresy. It seems to me that if we aren’t able to create a dogmatic worldview of God’s creation because of our inability to know enough with absolute certainty, our theological efforts to do the same will probably also fall short. Star gazing and theology both seem to require a certain level of humility in respect to the unknown, the surprises, and the all around mystery of what we are experiencing.